The continued saga of the ZX Spectrum Vega+
A timely cautionary tale for backers of new consoles.
In a week where the retro news has been dominated by announcements of new consoles from legacy names, we have had yet another reminder of how badly these things can go wrong for fans with yet more news about the utterly beleaguered ZX Spectrum Vega+ -- its makers, Retro Computers Ltd, have announced today that they intend to start shipping units out to the product's backers on June 15th. However, backers of the product are likely not holding their breath -- this is but the latest in line of a selection of proposed release dates for the product that go all the way back to October of 2016, and the resulting controversy surrounding the product has been a thorn in the side of the ZX Spectrum community ever since.
For those who might not be aware, the Vega+ markets itself as a handheld that plays ZX Spectrum games -- apparently when released, the machine will feature 1,000 of them built in. It comes complete with custom hardware and a case designed by the original Spectrum's designer, the late Rick Dickinson, and was originally pushed at a price point of £100. The system received funding through Indiegogo, achieving £512,790 -- over three times its goal.
However, since then everything has gone wrong. Days after the end of the crowdfunding campaign, two of RCL's directors -- Paul Andrews and Chris Smith, who were the makers of the original Vega plug-and-play console, left citing irreconcilable differences between them and the remaining director, David Levy, and they were replaced by Suzanne Martin and Dr. Janko Mrsic-Flogel -- both long time associates of Levy. The dispute between the former and current directors continues to this very day, both inside of courtrooms and online on social media -- one of many things that have cast a shadow over the product.
The other main thing, of course, is the complete lack of a product to show -- all that anyone has seen of the Vega+'s existence are a few prototypes, with no evidence at all of manufacturing beginning. Occasionally a person props up to say that they've just had a fabulous time playing on a Vega+ and are excited to see it arrive, but they bear no evidence aside from the same few stock images, and further questioning tends to get ugly. In 2017, RetroComputers' financial records were released and showed that the Indiegogo money has been spent, with nothing tangible to show for it, and Companies House have indicated that they are still yet to file their tax return for the 2017/18 fiscal year.
For many of the system's backers, this has been more than enough to ask for refunds from RCL -- and yet, only a percentage of the people who ask for refunds seem to actually get them. There was a substantial group of people who still believed in the product, but every passing update and piece of news on the system seems to deplete their number ever further. Websites such as www.zxvega.co.uk have been set up to chronicle what they see as the continued failings of RCL to release the product, and for many it has become clear that there will likely never be a product. Some believe that there was never any real intention to make a product.
This article only scratches the surface of the story, and many more articles like it are bound to appear -- after a long slowburn, major news sites such as the BBC are picking up on this technological controversy. Indiegogo themselves apparently gave RCL an ultimatum of the end of May to provide a meaningful update on the status of the product, or they would call in debt collectors -- it remains to be seen whether today's statement will be enough to keep the wolves from the door. The directors of RCL remain quite standoffish, denying that such an ultimatum exists and often categorising criticism of their business practices as attacks from trolls. Meanwhile, the system is still missing in action despite apparently being two weeks away from release.
One of the many frustrating things about the Vega+, really, is that it all should have been so simple. Just about any board and chip worth its salt can run games that originally required, at most, 128k of memory. It's a pretty simple thing to create your own Vega+ -- any Chinese handheld gaming device will do the job perfectly. Even the original Nintendo DS that's been sitting idle for a decade would comfortably handle Spectrum emulation with a flashcart and copy of ZXDS...so why go to so much trouble? Why attempt to create custom hardware, or insist on manufacturing in Britain, when any generic handheld made in Shenzhen could have done the job? Why indeed.
There are a thousand more questions to be answered about the ZX Vega+, most of which we will probably never know the answer to. One thing always sticks out in my mind -- at the time of the Vega+'s crowdfunding campaign, YouTube personality Pat Contri (Pat the NES Punk), after spending half an hour with co-host Ian Ferguson on their Completely Unneccessary Podcast dissecting the infamous Coleco Chameleon at the apex of that particular piece of vaporware's controversy, brought up the Vega+ and its endorsement by no less a figure than Sir Clive Sinclair, the inventor of the original ZX Spectrum, as a positive example of how things should be done. Little were Pat and Sir Clive to know...